Introductory Note:

How can we welcome God’s Advent in a way that produces holy joy in our lives? Perhaps we can imitate Francis of Assisi. In the year 1223, Francis was inspired to invent a way for his neighbors to “recall to memory the little Child who was born in Bethlehem.” Richard Foster tells the heart-warming story of this first live re-enactment of the Nativity.

Manger scenes and Nativity plays are common in our experience today, but reading about this first one nearly 800 years ago may bring fresh appreciation for the sacramental potential of this tradition. A live Nativity with characters and scenery—whether staged humbly by children or authentically crafted by experts—helps us draw near to the original event through our imaginations. We rest our gaze on a flesh-and-blood baby to help us picture our LORD in the flesh. We can see and smell and feel the hay, the animals, and the chilly night air. Who can help but smile when partaking in this embodied form of contemplation? We rejoice with Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, and the angels of heaven. With all creation we celebrate Immanuel—God-with-us. God still offers us his presence. May we rejoice in the assurance and experience of his nearness now.

Grace Pouch
Content Manager

Excerpt from Streams of Living Water

Holy joy is one of the most com­mon marks of those who walk in the pow­er of the Spir­it, and Fran­cis and his mer­ry band pos­sessed it in abun­dance. Their joy must have been a won­der to watch; just read­ing about it quick­ens the heart. These young trou­ba­dours of the Lord went from town to town, ine­bri­at­ed with holy joy. Even when Fran­cis stood in front of the pope, he all but danced. Thomas of Celano wrote of this event not­ing that Fran­cis spoke with such great fer­vor of spir­it, that, not being able to con­tain him­self for joy … he moved his feet as though he were danc­ing.”1

My favorite of the sto­ries that illus­trate the joy in the Spir­it felt by Fran­cis and his band cen­ters on Fran­cis putting togeth­er the very first Christ­mas crèche in the lit­tle town of Grec­cio. (Manger scenes are so com­mon today that it is hard for us to imag­ine the feel­ings that must have accom­pa­nied that orig­i­nal expe­ri­ence. The sto­ry is pre­served for us in Thomas of Celano’s First Life of St. Fran­cis.)

The year was 1223. Fran­cis by now had resigned as the head of the order that bears his name and was three years away from his death. The Christ­mas feast was near­ing, and in delight­ful spon­tane­ity Fran­cis declared, I wish to do some­thing that will recall to mem­o­ry the lit­tle Child who was born in Beth­le­hem.” So in mer­ry aban­don he found a near­by cave and made the nec­es­sary arrange­ments. Just imag­ine the mys­tery and intrigue as the peo­ple of Grec­cio won­dered what Fran­cis was up to in that cave at the edge of town. Then Christ­mas Eve — the day of joy … the time of great rejoic­ing” — arrived. The peo­ple of the neigh­bor­hood lit can­dles and torch­es to light up that night” and made their way to the cave with glad hearts.” Stand­ing at the edge of the cave, they saw revealed by their lights a tiny baby in a manger — a baby wrapped snug­ly in strips of cloth and warmed by the hot, steamy breath of a half-dozen cows and sheep. What in the world?! 

Then Fran­cis appeared, and he saw it and was glad.” Ah, now the peo­ple caught the point: Grec­cio was made, as it were, a new Beth­le­hem.” They were filled with new joy over the new mys­tery. The woods rang with the voic­es of the crowd and the rocks made answer to their jubi­la­tion. The broth­ers sang … and the whole night resound­ed with their rejoic­ing.” Fran­cis stood over the manger scene, utter­ing sighs, over­come with love, and filled with a won­der­ful hap­pi­ness.” Fran­cis sang to the peo­ple in a sweet voice, a clear voice, a sonorous voice.” He preached, speak­ing charm­ing words.” 

Then a mem­ber of the crowd had a vision that he shared with those gath­ered around this sim­ple manger scene. His vision was of a lit­tle child lying in a manger, life­less. But in the vision Fran­cis went up and touched the child and the child awak­ened as from a deep sleep.” The les­son of the vision was not lost on the assem­bled crowd, for the Child Jesus had been for­got­ten in the hearts of many; but, by the work­ing of his grace, he was brought to life again through his ser­vant St. Fran­cis and stamped upon their fer­vent mem­o­ry.” What a rev­er­ent, jubi­lant, solemn cel­e­bra­tion! And what a won­der-filled pageant for illit­er­ate peo­ple who did not have the lux­u­ry of read­ing and reread­ing the sto­ry for them­selves. On that night the joy of Christ­mas became pal­pa­ble to the peo­ple of Grec­cio. Each observ­er, Thomas not­ed, returned to his home with holy joy.”2

  1. St. Fran­cis of Assisi: Writ­ings and Ear­ly Biogra­phies: Eng­lish Omnibus of the Sources for the Life of St. Fran­cis, ed. Mar­i­on H. Habig (Chica­go: Fran­cis­can Her­ald Press, 1973), pp. 289 – 90. ↩︎
  2. St. Fran­cis of Assisi, pp. 299 – 301. Many oth­er sto­ries of Francis’s life and the cir­cum­stances sur­round­ing his death are read­i­ly avail­able to you, so I will not go into them here. I rec­om­mend to you Thomas of Celano’s First Life and Sec­ond Life of St. Fran­cis (Chica­go: Fran­cis­can Her­ald Press, 1963), St. Bonaventure’s Major Life of St. Fran­cis in St. Fran­cis of Assisi (pp. 627 – 787), Broth­er Ugolino’s The Lit­tle Flow­ers of St. Fran­cis, and any num­ber of the pop­u­lar biogra­phies of St. Francis. ↩︎

Text First Published October 1998 · Last Featured on Renovare.org December 2021

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

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